Gericault ’s The Raft of the Medusa

Gericault ’s The Raft of the Medusa

Gericault's painting


Gericault is a French painter from the 19th century, most famous for his impressively powerful masterpiece the Raft of the Medusa.  Medusa was a ship that set sail in 1816, towards the Senegalese port Saint Louis. Aboard were 400 people- including the new Senegalese governor-  and the captain was a man who hadn’t set sail for 25 years and had never commanded a ship.

Wanting to make good time, the ship forced itself across the waters. However, disaster struck and the ship hit a sandbar. People were forced to leave the ship behind- the wealthy had been given places on lifeboats while the remaining 149 people were crammed onto a raft. The makeshift raft was connected to a lifeboat, but at some point was cut loose. What followed were two weeks of utter terror, murders and cannibalism. Only 15 people survived the ordeal, and 5 of them died after being rescued.

Two years after the incident, Gericault unveiled his massive painting The Raft of The Medusa- which depicts a powerful scene from the raft. In order to complete this masterpiece, Gericault read testimonies from two of the survivors, and studied bodies in morgues. He even severed body parts and left them to decay in his studio in order to precisely capture the colors of death and decay. As he idolized Michelangelo,  the bodies are very sculptural and ideally strong- which in this scenario is a contradiction- men wouldn’t have been fit after a two week period of being lost at sea. He depicted accurately the fear and panic on their faces and the despair is visible. Gericault spent a year painting the sky and sea, with amazing and dramatic color contrasts.

The piece was received with a horrified fascination- Gericault had difficulties selling the piece. It was eventually sold but then rescued by the French government. It can now be seen at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Gericault’s masterpiece transmits many powerful feelings- watching it up close might be a one of a kind experience.

“We are all lost at sea, washed between hope and despair, hailing something that may never come to rescue us.”- Julian Barnes on this painting

What do you think of Gericault’s expression of despair?


Remi Koene
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